Essential Fall Exhibitions

Helen Rae at KARMA, March 24, 2016, graphite and colored pencil on paper, 24" x 18" 

Harald Stoffers at Cavin-Morris, Brief 163, 2010, waterproof felt tip pen on cardboard, 39.4" x 27.5"

Throughout 2016, a shift in tone and approach to presenting and discussing artists who exist outside of the traditional or mainstream (that has been crystallizing over the past few years) has continued in force. An unprecedented range of artists working in progressive art studios are being sought out by forward-thinking curators and featured in prominent galleries, including several exciting solo exhibitions - Marlon Mullen’s first solo shows at JTT and Adams and Ollman, Zinzinnati Ohio USA: The Maps of Courttney Cooper at Intuit in Chicago, and Helen Rae’s incredible second solo show at The Good Luck Gallery in LA. This trend continues and accelerates with an impressive array of current and upcoming shows that shouldn't be missed during the fall exhibition season - a great triumph for artists with developmental disabilities working in progressive art studios and other unconventional environments.

Billy White, Figures at South Willard in LA, September 2 - 16

Figures, organized by Celia Lesh, features a selection of narrative ceramic sculptures and drawings from the mysterious and magical oeuvre of NIAD’s Billy White. From Lesh’s curator statement:

Billy recurrently creates clay busts that begin as Vincent Van Gogh and morph into several different characters while retaining qualities of each previous personality – a hat, a mouth closed around a cigar, a mustache, a particularly muscular bicep. Vincent Van Gogh becomes Peter Sellers who becomes Redd Foxx who becomes Billy himself. Little Richard and Richard Pryor are married into a single body whose portrait is titled “Little Richard Pryor”. Sculptures of his father wear a hat that is WC Field’s, Yosemite Sam’s, and/or Jed Clampett’s. Identities are both specific and fluid, and exist in a sort of pantheon where the historic, celebrated, anonymous, and personal share a landscape.

Billy White at South Willard, Untitled, glazed earthenware, 7.5" x 5" x 3.5"

Outside at KARMA in Amagansett, NY, September 3 - September 25

Curated by White Columns Director Matthew Higgs, the extensive roster of great artists in Outside includes Joseph Yoakum, James Castle, Helen Rae of First Street Gallery, Marlon Mullen and Danny Thach of NIAD, William Scott, Aurie Ramirez, William Tyler, and John Hiltunen of Creative Growth, among many other contemporary artists. Participating artists (both conventionally trained and not), represent a wide spectrum of processes and media, while all investigate notions of landscape or sense of place.

Alessandra Michelangelo at Shrine in NYC, September 7 - October 9th

The first exhibition of Alessandra Michelangelo’s work in the United States (curated by Chris Byrne), is currently on view at Shrine, New York’s newest space specializing in both self-taught and contemporary art. Michelangelo’s pastel and colored pencil drawings employ contrasts in hue rather than value, which gives these abstracted figurative and architectural works a visual subtlety that softens the tone of their expressive intensity. Previous to her death in 2009, Michelangelo maintained a studio practice at Blu Cammello, an Italian progressive art studio for artists living with mental illness.

The Eloquent Place: New Works by Harald Stoffers and Josef Hofer, Cavin-Morris Gallery in NYC, September 8 - October 8th.

Featuring Harald Stoffers’ abstracted text-based drawings and Josef Hofer’s nude self-portraits, The Eloquent Place is poised to be a raw index of unspeakable vulnerability. Stoffers engages concepts similar to Dan Miller’s, but with a much more romantic tone of personal narrative; his drawings manifest as daily hand-written letters to his mother, which document his activities (both mundane and meaningful) in great detail. These two artists, well-established in the outsider art discourse, both create work in proto-progressive art studio settings in Austria and Germany.

Dan Miller, Click at Diane Rosenstein in LA, September 10 - October 16

A solo exhibition of works on paper by Creative Growth’s Dan Miller, Click includes Miller’s well-known layered text drawings and paintings, as well as selections from a lesser known body of work executed by typewriter, which are essential in understanding the true nature of Miller’s work and process. In these typed works, Miller’s hand, color, and space are reduced, revealing his message and the rhythm of his voice, which are typically obscured by his repetitive layering process while painting or drawing. This is Miller's first exhibition at Diane Rosenstein and in Los Angeles.

Dan Miller at Diane Rosenstein, Untitled, 2013, ink and acrylic on paper

Dale Jackson and Danny Thach at White Columns in NYC, September 13 - October 22

Visionaries and Voices’ Dale Jackson and NIAD’s Danny Thach both have solo shows currently on view at White Columns. These exhibitions feature a large installation of Jackson’s poetic, text-based work and a collection of Thach’s re-interpretations of Keith Haring works, which recreate the images faithfully, but are characterized by more personal and exposed paint handling. Matthew Higgs, one of the earliest champions of artists working in progressive art studios (co-curator of the seminal Create exhibition in 2012 with Lawrence Rinder and early supporter of Creative Growth’s William Scott) has continued to support Bay Area studios while also seeking out artists at Gateway Arts, Visionaries and Voices, and other small studios in the Northeast.

Charles Steffen at The Good Luck Gallery in LA, September 3 - October 29

This marks the first exhibition of Charles Steffen’s work in Los Angeles, in cooperation with Andrew Edlin Gallery. Steffen’s graphite and colored pencil drawings on found paper “resemble pages from an idiosyncratic self-referential field guide with sunflowers, crucifixions and figures complemented by scrawled diaristic ruminations. The figures are often transparent, as if their nerve cells and fibers were on display, and surrounded by aureoles of gray light; bodies and flowers often merge into each other.” Steffen originally began a prolific drawing practice during a fifteen year stay at the Elgin State Hospital in Illinois, which continued until his death in 1995.

Susan Te Kahurangi King: Drawings 1975 - 1989 at Andrew Edlin Gallery in NYC, September 16 - October 30

The gallery’s second exhibition of New Zealand-based artist Susan Te Kahurangi King, curated by Chris Byrne and Robert Heald, is highly anticipated and runs concurrently with her first solo museum show at the ICA Miami. Byrne’s 2014 exhibition of King's work, Drawings from Many Worlds, was widely revered as one of the best exhibitions that year. Known for her colorful, frenetic abstractions of invented characters and appropriated Disney icons that predate Arturo Herrera, Drawings 1975-1989 features a lesser known, primarily monochromatic series of pattern-based drawings in graphite. While more minimal and understated than King's previous work, they remain highly original and compelling.

Courttney Cooper at Western Exhibitions in Chicago, November 12 - December 31

Visionaries and Voices’ Courttney Cooper has a well-deserved first solo exhibition with Western Exhibitions, one of Chicago’s best contemporary art spaces. Cooper's complex bic pen drawings document his intimate experience with Cincinnati, accumulating across increasingly massive surfaces (created by gluing together scrap paper that he gathers while working at Kroger). Cooper creates an authentic network of specific places and structures; his streets are intensely composed of details from memory or observation, cataloging expressions of particular moments or time of year. The relationship of these moments to each other in space is approximated, as in memory - all of which culminates in a dizzying realm of overlapping information that becomes a living record, adorned generously with nostalgic, commemorative expressions of community and identity.   

 

 

 

Discussing Biography

Judith Scott in the studio, image via Creative Growth

Over the past several years, as work created by artists working in progressive art studios (as well as those historically categorized as outsider or visionary) has entered the mainstream, questions have emerged about how to appreciate and discuss these artists. What does it mean to contextualize this work as fine art? What really defines this categorization? What role should the artist's disability or dispositional narrative play in understanding the work? Responding to these questions often seems to result in skirting or avoiding the consideration of an artist's biography.  

Fear of overstating biography is rooted in a fair desire to understand these artists on a level playing field with their contemporaries, trying to avoid both an especially generous consideration and a disparaging framing of “other” (necessarily lesser) - seemingly opposite ideas that are in effect the same, a phenomenon which we refer to as the “sympathetic eye”.  This dismissive perspective suggests that this work is compelling and valuable only relative to biography; “this is a great achievement...for a person with a disability” is the most destructive and unfortunate possible understanding. This problem emerges in two distinct and passive ways: as an expression of a commonly held, inherent bias or an escape from the pressure of formulating a critical, thoughtful response. There tends to be a discomfort (even fear) that disability or mental illness elicits because the true nature of their difference is unknown - it remains a great and beautiful mystery. This mystery provides an unsure footing for the viewer, unable to feel (with either praise or criticism), if they understand and are receiving what's being communicated or that they’ll be exposed with their response.  And so, the sympathetic eye is easily provoked and often may occur without provocation, or despite active attempts to dispel it in the nature of presentation.

installation view of Jessie Dunahoo's work at Andrew Edlin Gallery, image via Andrew Edlin Gallery. Dunahoo's installations are vehicles for relating his personal history and fictional narratives, while also recalling their genesis as a tool he devised as a child to navigate his family's farm in Kentucky.  

In Nathaniel Rich’s recent piece about Creative Growth in The New York Times (A Training Ground for Untrained Artists), he quotes a 1993 article by Rosemary Dinnage in order to describe the appeal of outsider art:  “The fantasy that over there, on the other side of the insanity barrier, is a freedom and passion and color that were renounced in childhood … the longing for a return to something direct and strong and primitive.” Dinnage, and Rich by reference, articulate a sympathetic bifurcation that is false; it’s implicated that mainstream contemporary art (we’ll refer to it as insider art) is inherently more structured and sophisticated (less primitive, less free). If this is understood in terms of biography, the real misconception becomes clear. It’s presumed that biography is important in outsider art and not insider art because the latter has a sophisticated, conceptual structure devised by the artist in the course of intentionally creating works of art (intended to be presented and marketed in the contemporary mainstream), a structure that references western art history and culture. In outsider art, a sympathetic viewer assumes that this sophistication is absent, so biography or a captivating narrative is necessary to take the place of a conceptual structure that provides its context. Thus, the perception is that an artist isn’t being intentional, but instead their disposition is what causes the work to be interesting.

In the presentation of Judith Scott’s Bound and Unbound at the Brooklyn Art Museum,  curator Catherine Morris sought to avoid this characterization stating:

We have tried to resist viewing Scott’s lack of speech as a void in need of filling and instead have chosen to focus on what Scott does communicate through her work. Readings that draw on biography to construct narrative interpretations for artists who do not communicate through traditional means have historically taken precedence over other ways of understanding. This exhibition is, in part, an attempt to forefront readings of the work that ask questions without expecting definitive answers or metaphorical readings.
https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/judith_scott/

Despite this earnest attempt to challenge the viewer to accept mystery, Cynthia Cruz, writing for Hyperallergic, responded “I question the importance of biography as it is emphasized in the wall texts. This results in silencing the work, turning it into the strange artifacts of a strange, not-understood person,” (Words Fall Away) suggesting that the mere presence of the artist's biography in the exhibition is sufficient to “silence” the artist's voice. Cruz makes a comparison to A Cosmos, at the New Museum, where Scott's work was exhibited without biographical information among insiders of similar sensibility. Certainly integrating works by artists with disabilities covertly into group shows with mainstream artists will effectively evade the sympathetic eye, but possibly at the cost of putting a ceiling on their careers and ultimately perpetuating the stigma that disability should remain hidden. 

Daniel Green, Billy Ocean & Little Richard & Tina Turner, colored pencil/micron on paper, courtesy Creativity Explored

Beyond the problematic implications of both relying on biography too much or avoiding it altogether, often, actively excluding biography is a disservice to the work. David Pagel, in an excellent review of Helen Rae’s exhibition at The Good Luck Gallery (Exhibition Review: Helen Rae), creates an ideal balance of formal, conceptual, and biographical discussion. His criticism focuses primarily on the experience of viewing the work, with keen observations of her routine, artistic process, and unique way of seeing as they are relevant to her drawings, which ultimately assist in recognizing and appreciating their power.

Rejecting the presumption that outsider or visionary art is to be filtered solely through a biographical understanding, whereas contemporary art always speaks for itself, means accepting the fact that some elements of biography are important to all works of art. A heavy focus on biography is, of course, common in outsider art writing. Discussing his recent book about Martín Ramírez with Edward Gómez for Hyperallergic, Víctor M. Espinosa makes an important distinction between a sociological perspective and a formal one:

It is written from the point of view of someone who is practicing the sociology of art, not from that of a conventional art historian … Sociologists believe that no work of art stands alone like that. It’s not that simple. Various factors play roles in how a work of art is produced and, ultimately, in what it might mean at any given time — social, cultural, historical, economic and other factors.
HYPERALLERGIC

Traditionally, a sociological perspective (or even anthropological one) is permissible in the discussion of outsider art, but it’s not only to fill a void where the artist's own explanation is absent. Espinosa points out that absent any “sociological perspective” (ie. biography) the evaluation is incomplete. These factors are an unavoidable element of any work; certainly our knowledge of Kara Walker’s race or Jeff Koons’ marriage to Cicciolina, for example, informs our understanding of their work. As Matthew Higgs points out:

I think that that question of the artist’s biography is something that a lot of people have issue with in relation to outsider art. I was wondering why we don’t know more about the lives of contemporary artists, why it’s only when they suddenly get a 10-page profile in the New Yorker that we find out what their parents do. Unless an artist gets to a certain level of visibility, we know nothing really about a contemporary artist’s life. We don’t know about their home life, about their kids, what their kids do, what their parents did, or what their partner does. All of this is regarded as extraneous to the work, which of course it isn’t. It’s central to the work.
Artspace

Joe Zaldivar, Street Map of Claremont, California, marker on paper, courtesy of First Street Gallery

This begs the question, though, of what’s really occurring and why it's happening now, if outsiders and insiders are so similar in this regard. The real concern is not the presence of these ideas, but who controls them. Andrew Edlin Gallery’s Phillip March Jones explains the additional roles of an outsider art gallery director with Karen Rosenberg for Artspace:

Someone like Judith Scott …  there’s a lot of reasons she wouldn’t be able to [market herself]. And other people are just so involved in the works they’re creating that it’s not really part of their reflective process. A lot of the art we show is created for very personal reasons, usually in private. Often, the artists create worlds they wish to inhabit. Maybe sometimes they don’t know that they aren’t inhabiting them—maybe they live within that work, or maybe the relationship to the work is more important, or real, than the relationships they have in our real world. I think someone like Henry Darger very clearly lived more in his work, his drawings, than in Chicago.
…As dealers in this field we have a greater responsibility to the artist, because frequently you are the one who is making a lot of the decisions that the artist would make. When I work with a contemporary artist, they’re present for the installation—they’re doing all these things that for the most part the outsider artist is not engaged in
.
Artspace

What Jones is describing, in effect, is a process of translation. The trajectory of American art history over the past 100-150 years has been driven by a search for new concepts and divergent ways of thinking. This has always been most notably achieved by including ideas previously considered to reside in the margins - Picasso’s appropriation of the ideas and aesthetics of African art, the inclusion of women in the 60s and 70s, the appropriation of commercial and design aesthetics by Pop artists, current artists investigating race and LGBTQ issues, etc. This process has lead to a situation in which the boundaries of the creative culture are so thoroughly broken down that contemporary artists are expected to invent art for themselves and, in effect, become new outsiders. What remains of our consensus culture is only in the periphery - pristine white spaces, white cotton gloves, and expensive crates.  Insider artists create for this context, but it’s social power has become equally available to objects like the quilts of Gees Bend, which once had a context and purpose of their own, if a curator such as Phillip March Jones is able to provide it.

Tom Sachs Space Program, image via tomsachs.org

Tom Sachs’ 2007 Space Program took place in the blue chip heart of the contemporary mainstream, Gagosian in Chelsea, but it’s only this context that makes it an insider work. Had he created the same body of work, but instead performed the landing in a midwestern backyard then he would be an outsider - and we may give greater credence to his stated goal of creating as a means of attaining the unattainable in a mystical sense, yet his social commentary most likely be dismissed and pathologized as an expression of some strange paranoid thought process. Those distinctions, however, are less important than the fact that it would still be a remarkable and highly sophisticated work. It is an important revelation that the difference between outsiders and insiders is actually just a few delicate details of circumstance. It’s not a desire to escape the superior sophistication of the mainstream that has lead to the inclusion of outsider work, but that the line between the two is increasingly blurred. From our perspective, these designattions have become obsolete and are more appropriately used in only a historical context. 

Unfortunately, the sympathetic eye is almost inevitable and shouldn’t be the responsibility of galleries, curators, or art writers to actively target and discourage this tendency. It is their responsibility, however, to confidently lead by example in a full and fair engagement with the work of these artists as they would with any other, including uninhibited discussion of biography, disability, and the various relevant aspects of lifestyle and disposition that inform the work - a respectful practice of appreciating these works by approaching the unknown with wonder instead of fear. This may mean being comfortable experiencing a work as fiction when it was intended as non-fiction or recognizing that compelling, conceptual contrivances of a neurotypical artist may be just as compelling (or more compelling) as intuitive expressions from an artist with an intellectual disability. Because, by definition, neurodiversity will require communication across profound intellectual differences, including vast disparity in the fundamental nature of our experience - the work must become a point of connection without having to result in a consensus.

 

 

Marlon Mullen Update

Marlon Mullen, Untitled (P2403), acrylic on canvas, 36" x 36"

Marlon Mullen, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 24" x 30"

Marlon Mullen, Untitled, acrylic on canvas, 30" x 30"

Marlon Mullen in the studio, images courtesy NIAD

Marlon Mullen (b. 1963 Rodeo, CA), who is now represented exclusively by JTT Gallery and Adams and Ollman, lives in Richmond California, where he maintains a studio practice at NIAD Art Center. Mullen’s process entails reducing found imagery, often in the form of art publications, to a point well beyond recognition. Mullen’s flat, simple abstractions are achieved with utter sincerity, devoid of stylistic embellishment, and without reverting to geometric or systematic deconstructions (calling to mind the work of Gary Hume or Monique Prieto). Each elegant, lushly painted composition feels like an original, unequivocal interpretation of its source (while maintaining mere fragments of the initial image), but ultimately asserting a new sense of resolution with power and charm.  

Mullen has been exhibiting work for several years, but there has been a recent increase of interest in his oeuvre; after his inaugural show with JTT in New York, he went on to have a solo exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary; upcoming solo exhibitions are slated with Adams and Ollman in Portland, Oregon and Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco. JTT and Adams and Ollman will also be co-presenting a solo show of Mullen's work at the Outsider Art Fair in January. 

In a March Artspace interview, on Finding Space in the Market for Underdogs, curator and White Columns Director Matthew Higgs asserted that Marlon Mullen is "an amazingly interesting painter...we did a solo with Mullen a few years ago...JTT saw his work with us and is doing a solo show with him now. I think that's a really amazing development, that Mullen's work, which was largely only seen in the context of the center where he worked, is now finding multiple audiences. Certainly, from our perspective at White Columns, the goal is to create an audience for these ideas - we're less concerned, or ultimately less interested, in creating a market for these ideas. But I accept entirely that sometimes a market will come."

Mullen's work was discussed more recently in a compelling article written by Brendan Greaves for Artnews, The Error of Margins: Vernacular Artists and the Mainstream Art World. Greaves investigates the current role of Mullen and comparable artists in the contemporary art market:

Though the art world may not yet have a satisfactory way of referring to artists like Mullen, who are variously described by such leaky terms as self-taught, outsider, and vernacular, it has, over the past few years, shown more interest in them and is gradually growing the existing market for their work. When this issue of ARTnews went to press, Christie’s was preparing a September sale of what it deems “outsider and folk art,” including work by such acknowledged masters as Chicago narrative artist Henry Darger, Tennessee stone carver William Edmondson, Swiss Art Brut exemplar Adolf Wölfli, and rural Idahoan James Castle, who made paper constructions and delicate drawings with soot and spit.


The anticipated sales prices of the vernacular works at the auction—ranging from $2,000 to $4,000 for small pieces by Clementine Hunter, a painter of life on the Louisiana plantation on which she lived, to $400,000 to $600,000 for a large double-sided Darger drawing—illustrate the highly variable nature of this still-developing market. As Cara Zimmerman, Christie’s newly hired specialist in the field, told me over the summer, “While some well-known artists like Darger and Edmondson have already achieved auction prices commensurate with post-war and contemporary artists, this is still a new venture for us.

Previous exhibitions include the Parking Lot Art Fair in San Francisco (2015), Welcome To My World at NIAD (2015), NADA Art Fair White Columns Booth in Miami (2014), Under Another Name, organized by Thomas J. Lax at the Studio Museum of Harlem (2014), Undercover Geniuses organized by Jan Moore at the Petaluma Arts Center (2013), Color and Form at Jack Fischer Gallery in San Francisco (2013), Marlon Mullen at White Columns in NYC (2012), After Shelley Duvall '72 at Maccarone in NYC (2011), and Create, curated by Matthew Higgs and Lawrence Rinder at the Berkeley Art Musueum (2011). Mullen is a 2015 recipient of the Wynn Newhouse Award and has work in the collections of The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Berkeley Art Museum, and MADMusée (Belgium). See more of Mullen's work here